Tackling The Problem

FAYETTEVILLE -- Linebacker Pierre Brown didn't have any trouble identifying Arkansas' biggest defensive concern heading into Saturday's season opener against Missouri State in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

After all, the glaring weakness played an integral part in Arkansas' first losing season since 1997. And it wasn't up to defensive coordinator Reggie Herring's standards during Arkansas' Fan Day on August 20, which was the only time the Razorbacks have been in a game-like atmosphere since the spring.

"Our tackling hurt us last year," Brown said, shaking his head in disappointment. "It has been our biggest problem again."

Herring hasn't had many opportunities to evaluate his team's tackling outside of the scrimmage nearly two weeks ago. But he saw enough to be concerned about the performance and called it "the mystery of this defense" Tuesday night.

That's not promising after 2004, when poor tackling served as the Achilles' heel of a defense that, statistically speaking, turned in one of its worst seasons in school history. But the Razorbacks are well-versed in the consequences of poor tackling after last season and, if there's any hope of returning to a bowl game this winter, understand they must get a grasp on the problem beginning Saturday.

"We'll have a better grip on our tackling (after the opener)," Herring said. "And if it continues to be poor, we'll work harder and harder. And if we've got to work an hour a day on it, we're going to do it. It's being emphasized. It's just got to get better.

"That's something you can't be is a poor-tackling defensive team."

The Razorbacks have placed a premium on tackling all summer and even made a move to get the point across last week. Sophomore Matterral Richardson went from first-team cornerback to first-team free safety, replacing Randy Kelly.

Herring said Richardson has proven to be a reliable tackler. Kelly was more prone to search for a big hit. But Herring wants sure-handed tacklers on the field.

"We made the move with Kelly just to make an emphasis that his missed tackles weren't acceptable," Herring said. "And that we had to get 11 out there that we trust could tackle on game day.

"Now, Kelly's working harder than ever on trying to correct that."

They all are. On average, Arkansas spends 10 to 15 minutes on tackling drills every day. Herring said the amount is scaled back during shorter workouts, but is always part of the Razorbacks' practice routine.

Defensive backs coach Bobby Allen said the staff spends plenty of time teaching fundamentals like squaring up and driving through ball carriers. He also said Arkansas' best tacklers include Richardson, linebackers Pierre Brown and Sam Olajubutu, strong safety Vickiel Vaughn, cornerback Darius Vinnett and defensive end Desmond Sims.

Brown said the key to good tackling is concentration. It shouldn't be taken lightly in practice. After all, it is what defensive players do.

"You have to practice your craft," Brown said. "You have to take it seriously. You can't just get through the tackling portion of practice, say, 'I can't wait until this is over with so we can get to something easier.'

"We tackle. That's what we do for a living."

Arkansas will have plenty of opportunities to work out the kinks Saturday.

One of Missouri State's strengths is its backfield, which is paced by leading returning rusher Brandon Taylor (261 yards). There also are four transfers, including former Georgia running back Michael Cooper, who led the Bulldogs in rushing as a freshman in 2003 (673 yards, 6 touchdowns).

The Bears will provide a decent test for a unit hoping to improve when it gets on the field in Razorback Stadium.

Defensive end Anthony Brown said the opener will be a good chance to shake off the rust that accumulated in the off-season.

"You don't want to go out there and try to hurt your teammates in practice," said Brown, who will make his debut at defensive end after spending last season as a receiver. "But when you face another opponent, it's different. So, I think you do have to be in a game to see if you have a good tackling team or not."

Allen said there's no "real science" other than the desire to get a ball carrier on the ground. He has been around plenty of quality tacklers in his coaching career, including former Hogs like Tony Bua, Ken Hamlin and Caleb Miller.

The three rank first, second and third, respectively on Arkansas' all-time tackle list.

"They had football sense and understood their job and they ran to the ball and when they got there, they had the desire to make the tackle," Allen said. "They liked contact. They were willing to get themselves in the fundamental position because they understood that's what it took to get the guy to the ground."

Allen is confident a few current Razorbacks will evolve into those type of tacklers.

He and Herring believe several players have that potential and can help Arkansas avoid the same fate that poor tackling created in 2004.

"The bottom line is we'll know come this Saturday," Herring said. "At least we'll have a feel. At least we'll have a gauge or a starting point about our defense and we're going to build on it.

"What we need is a real ball game right now and we're going to find out."

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